Saturday, November 25, 2006

Roger Tory Peterson

Saturday, November 25, 2006

It's been ten years since the bird watching world was shocked by the news of the death of Roger Tory Peterson, the man who, more than anyone else, launched the modern era of birding with his simplified approach to bird identification. His first Field Guide to the Birds was published in 1934, and its usefulness made it an immediate best seller. This made it possible to identify birds without having to shoot them. The era of shotgun ornithology was dead.

After my parents started Bird Watcher's Digest in our living room in 1978, they sent out complimentary copies of the magazine to various bird clubs, Christmas Count compilers, and newspaper birding columnists. We received an encouraging response in both subscriptions and correspondence, but nothing excited my parents more than the personal letter sent by one Roger Tory Peterson. In his letter, RTP critiqued our first issue, telling what he liked and disliked about it and offering suggestions for the future content direction of the magazine.

In the magazine's early years we relied heavily on previously published material (hence the word "digest" in BWD's name). Within just a few years original content created specifically for our magazine began to flood in and BWD evolved beyond the constrictions of being a digest publication, though we still kept our digest size. As the content expanded in scope and quality, my dad took it upon himself to suggest, during a visit with RTP at his Old Lyme, CT home, that he write a regular column for the magazine. My dad never thought Roger would say yes, but he did!

From 1984 until his death in 1996, Roger Peterson wrote a bimonthly column for Bird Watcher's Digest, entitled "All Things Reconsidered." Mary Beacom Bowers, BWD's amazing editor from 1979 through 1994, edited those columns for publication. Some of the material was new and original, some of it was updated and re-worked from earlier pieces. But all of it was quintessential RTP.

Mary used to remark to me (I was a junior member of the BWD editorial staff at the time) about what a good and careful writer RTP was. His material came in on time and we barely needed to use the editor's red pen on it. In fact writing (or storytelling) may have been Roger's most natural talent. We always considered it our immense good fortune that the great man chose to write for our magazine when there were so many other things vying for his time.

This year, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Roger Tory Peterson's death, Houghton Mifflin has published a collection of Roger's BWD essays, entitled (of course) All Things Reconsidered. I was lucky enough to serve as the book's editor and got to select the 40 most interesting columns from more than 70 that RTP wrote for BWD. It was not an easy job, choosing just 40. Reading through the essays I was reminded of the incredible talent Roger Peterson possessed, and how deeply he felt his connection with birds and nature.

Even though I did not write this book, I feel a special connection to it. Roger Peterson is (or should be) a hero to every bird watcher or birder for the legacy he's left to us. I am deeply honored to have my name on the cover of this book, along with the great Roger Tory Peterson.

I got to met Roger several times, but our first meeting was the most important. I'll save that story for another post. But if you're really interested in reading about it, it's in the introduction to All Things Reconsidered.

Here is some additional information about the book in the BWD online store.
The book's publisher, Houghton Mifflin has a few nice things to say about the book.
And online giant sells the book and features some recent reviews of it.

The legacy of RTP is carried on these days by the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History in Roger's hometown of Jamestown, New York. Its mission is not only to commemorate America's most important birder/naturalist, but to educate teachers and children about nature, so that tomorrow's Roger Tory Petersons can begin their relationship with nature today.

I will be speaking at Peterson Institute on Wednesday, December 6, 2006 as part of the their Distinguished Speakers Series. Details about the program are available here from the RTPI website.

The next time you're out bird watching, spend a moment to think about Roger Tory Peterson. And maybe you'll want to smile and whisper a thank you to the memory of the person who changed forever the way we look at and relate to wild birds.


On November 25, 2006 at 4:25 PM Mon@rch said...

Bill, I will be at RTPI and can't wait to get a copy of this book! You can be sure that I will blog your night, so be careful what story's you tell!

On November 25, 2006 at 8:14 PM Laughingrat said...

What a beautiful legacy, and a nice post as well.

On November 25, 2006 at 10:52 PM janet said...

I bought this book on Wednesday and am enjoying it very much. I read the section on Bosque del Apache first. Am enjoying it very much. Thanks for getting RTP's writing out into the bookiverse.

On November 26, 2006 at 7:16 PM KatDoc said...

You can keep your Sibley's, Audubon's, Kaufmann's and other field guides. Although I own, use and admire many of these, my first field guide, my "go-to" book, and the one that always accompanies me in the field is my 1980 copy of the 4th edition of RTP's "A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies." It is my bible, my reference, and my friend and companion. I have notes and dates in the margins, and until recently, the checklist in the front of the book was my only Life List.

Before receiving my own personal copy of RTP's field guide, I wore out the family copy of my childhood, an earlier edition, though I used it mostly for looking at the pictures.

I will keep an eye out for this book, and look forward to reading Mr. Peterson's essays. It will almost be like he is with us again.


On November 27, 2006 at 9:16 AM Patrick Belardo said...

RTP is definitely one of my heroes. I finally finished "Wild America" last week. It was amazing. I would love to see the film associated with the movie. I think the RTPI owns the rights to it. Anyone know anything about that?

On November 27, 2006 at 10:18 AM Rondeau Ric said...

BT3. I'm really pleased for you. To be part of Distinguished Speakers Series must be an honor.

I took up birding far to late to have an opportunity to met the man.

If your presentation was on a weekend I would consider coming down as I haven't been to the institute.


On December 1, 2006 at 10:08 AM Bill of the Birds said...


Scott Weidensaul saw your inquiry about the Wild America film and sent this reply to me for you:

"The RTPI has a newly mastered video of the film, which I got to see, although I don't believe it's available off-site. Nor does the film have an audio track -- they have a recording of Peterson narrating the film for the Audubon Screen Tour series, but it doesn't marry with the images, since RTP sometimes turned off the projector to talk, then restarted the film. Defintely worth seeing."

On December 7, 2006 at 4:45 PM Patrick Belardo said...

Cool. Thanks. I just re-asked this question to Mon@rch and then I remembered I asked you already! Duh. That's something I would love to see.

On June 10, 2008 at 9:38 PM jessjeepqueen said...

Bill, I found your website searching for information on baby birds, possibly a robin. My son and his friends found a nest after today's thunderstorm. There was only one survivor, and the children already touched the bird (actually my son placed it a shoebox with some straw) before I could stop them. It is alert and eating. I fed it slugs, wood lice, and worms. It ate ravenously. Then it eliminated waste. It has feathers except in the creases of its body and its eyes are open. Any advice? I can feed it on a regular schedule - in fact I went and collected a store of the above mentioned food stuff. I am worried about teaching it to find its own food and of course flying. Are there any laws against raising this baby? If there are, who can I take it to? Please help.